The Integration Step

Building a safe and secure school environment takes time, thought, effort and, of course, money.

Columbine and other tragedies — shootings as well as kidnappings, bullying and on and on — have made school officials as well as faculty, parents and students realize the importance of security. “Columbine kick-started the public and private school focus on security,” says Chuck Hibbert, president of Indianapolis-based Hibbert Safe School Consulting, LLC.

Heightened awareness of the problem was the first step.

Further steps, such as hiring security officers, have helped to make schools more secure.

Similarly, the addition of security technologies, including video surveillance, access control and intrusion detection, has for many schools and districts contributed to improved school security.

For schools that have made a good start, the next step will integrate security technologies and boost safety and security to new levels by enabling faster, more sure-handed responses to security events.

What Does It Mean to 
Integrate Security Technology?
When you use your computer to log onto a website, your web browser integrates your computer with a server or group of servers at that website.

Suppose you log onto a newspaper website. You use your mouse to select among headlines and pictures on your browser screen. When you click on a headline, you see the story and photos pop up on your screen.

Behind the scenes, however, what happens is far from simple. Your mouse click sends a series of commands to the remote server asking for the text and photos connected to the article. The remote server sends the data, which your computer uses to create a screen displaying the article’s text and photos, along with buttons that will allow you to send further commands to the remote computer.

It isn’t complicated for you. The software in your browser and the hardware in your computer handle all of the complex data communications that produce the result you want.

Another example: Suppose you have surfed to a site with a webcam. When you click on the webcam icon, your browser creates a connection between the server controlling that webcam and your computer. The software and hardware from each party to the transaction literally discuss the meaning of your mouse click and adjust their systems to satisfy your request, enabling you to view what the webcam is looking at on your screen.

While the underlying discussion among the various technologies involved is complicated, it reliably produces the result you want because the technologies have been integrated.

Apply this thinking to security technologies. “The major systems we’re integrating are electronic access control, video surveillance and intrusion alarms,” says Paul Timm, PSP, president of RETA Security, Inc., a consulting firm in Lemont, Ill. “Can we do more? Yes. But these are the major systems.”

Here’s how it might work. Today, you can connect your cameras to the school or district network. This is no longer technically difficult. You might take this a step further and connect your card access control system and intrusion alarms to the network.

If these systems employ architecture that allow for integration (something you should always specify), a system integrator can enable the systems to send data back and forth to each other.

The integrator can program the interconnected system to take certain actions when certain data shows up.

For instance, the hardware and software that integrate a system of intrusion alarms, cameras and camera monitors can cause a camera to swing around to view a door where an alarm has gone off. At the same time, the integrated system can cause an alarm monitor in a principal’s office or security center to emit an audible alarm and display video from a camera covering the door that has alarmed. A principal or security officer can cycle through nearby cameras looking for the intruder, while dispatching a security officer to investigate.

If there is an intruder, the individual watching the scenes displayed on the alarm monitors can, if necessary, alert responding officers to potential problems. If the responding officers or police carry smart phones or tablet computers, the system operator can provide a link to video of the scene.

A networked and integrated system can also enable the police to tune into the school’s cameras if necessary.

Real Life Integration
Many colleges and universities integrate security technologies to help protect residence halls, classroom buildings, administrative offices, parking lots and other areas on campus. Large corporations integrate security technologies at their locations almost as a matter of course.

The practice has begun to gain proponents among officials responsible for security in pre-K-12 schools.

In upstate New York, for instance, Utica City School District has integrated security technologies in each of its 14 schools.

“We installed cameras at each school covering the entire exterior,” says Toby L Heath, CPP, PSP, a security engineer with C&S Companies, the Syracuse, N.Y.-based security consulting firm that managed the project. “We also placed cameras at high interest points — doors, for instance — inside the buildings.”

The cameras capture video, record it and store it at the site where the camera is mounted. When there is an alarm, the cameras automatically send video to an alarm monitor, continues Heath, who is a founding member of the ASIS International Young Professionals Group. ASIS International is an association for security professionals.

The cameras contain chips equipped with video analytics software, an emerging security technology capable of monitoring video captured by cameras. Analytics literally look for certain kinds of actions — running, falling, climbing — around two-dozen specific actions. When the system detects a programmed motion, it sets off an alarm. For instance, if a Utica District camera, after hours, detects motion that appears to be a person approaching a door, it will trigger an alarm.

“The camera signals the onsite security guard, who checks the video and decides whether or not an officer should investigate,” says Heath.

During the day, Utica District security technology locks all but two exterior doors in each school. “If one of the locked doors opens,” continues Heath, “a guard receives a pop up notification from the access control system.”

Integrating Systems 
From Different Manufacturers
One of the challenges to effective integration arises when a school or district employs technology from different manufacturers: video cameras from several manufacturers, access control from others manufacturer and intrusion controls from still other companies.

Security integrators today work with a number of firms that provide middleware — technology that sits in the middle of several different kinds of technology. Given technologies engineered with what is called open architecture, middleware can enable unlike technologies to communicate with each other and to automate certain security tasks — like sensing an intrusion alarm, telling a pan-tilt-zoom camera nearby to zero in on the door and setting off an alarm in a security center.

In fact, the security industry has dubbed this category of middleware with a name and an acronym: physical security information management or PSIM. “In PSIM, the complexities of each subsystem (access control, intrusion alarms, video cameras and other security technologies) are normalized or integrated into a common user interface,” says Jeremy Morton, director of sales with Indianapolis-based CNL Software, a PSIM vendor. “With PSIM, one operator can manage an event across several different systems and campuses. It adds up to a big efficiency gain when responding to an event.

“This may not matter for an everyday event — a student goes out an emergency exit and sets off an alarm. But if the worst happens — a shooting or abduction — you need to respond quickly and efficiently. That’s where PSIM is important.”

When Speed Is Important
It’s easy to understand why speed is important when someone shows up with a gun and pulls the trigger. No question, security must move instantly.

The same level of speed is important in other cases. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for example, 203,900 children (younger than 18) fall victim to abductions by family members each year. Strangers abduct another 58,200 children every year.

“The vast majority of child abductions do not turn into homicides,” says Brian H. Reich, CPP, president of The Reich Group, a Bergen County, N.J.-based security consulting firm. “Of the abductions that do involve homicide, the murder occurs within 60 minutes of the abduction. So response speed is critical in the case of child abductions.”

Still, as noted, speed is less vital in day-to-day security. Then again, no one knows when the worst might happen.

Security is an expensive process, and few districts can afford to go from zero to fully integrated in a year or two or even three. Security is a process. Security directors plan ahead and expand their systems in rational, affordable ways, adapting to new risks with new strategies and technologies over time.

By making steady progress toward full integration, a school district can eventually get there. And students will be safer for the effort.